Container-on-barge will happen; but when? Versions of that sentiment have been circulating among the inland navigation community for decades. Various COB experiments on the inland waterways have come and gone, some proclaiming that they represented a tipping point in the adoption of COB. Some, like Seacor AMH, have enjoyed a degree of success.
The latest round of grants from the Maritime Administration’s Marine Highway Program are trying to nudge that future closer to reality. The Paducah-McCracken County Riverport was granted $480,000 to obtain equipment necessary to begin regularly scheduled COB service. Interestingly, the grant will be used in part to buy or lease equipment at a Baton Rouge facility to load and unload containers. The Paducah-McCracken County Riverport is working with an “unnamed partner.”
The big obstacle so far to promoters of COB is that many pieces of COB infrastructure have to be in place and start up at once. The arguments for the advantages of COB remain compelling. But both ends of a proposed cargo route have to be developed, and cargoes (or at least some reasonably firm indication of demand) assured in order for a COB route to be economically viable.
This grant takes account of that objection, funding both ends of the proposed route. It represents a broader vision than grants that are “siloed” to one particular port.
Two other Marine Highway grants also funded COB concepts.
One awarded $1.04 million to the Baton Rouge-New Orleans Shuttle of the M-55, which will buy six purpose-built container vessels and lease a towboat to support the Port Allen to New Orleans container shuttle.
Another gave $180,000 to the Houston Gateway and Gulf Container on Barge Central Node, sponsored by the Port of Houston Authority. Part of that grant will go toward a study providing further data to support COB between terminals. No doubt one issue to be studied is what to do with empties; COB routes provide the most promise when vessels can carry paid cargo loads in both directions.
Earlier last year, MarAd awarded $3.15 million to a project supporting the transport of resins between Memphis and the ports of New Orleans and Baton Rouge via COB and $1.8 million to James River Barge Lines for the construction of an additional barge to expand its existing service between deepwater container terminals in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and the Port of Richmond.
It’s encouraging that the COB concept has garnered such strong support from high levels of MarAd, including Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, an experienced shipping operator herself.
There are still a lot of variables to be worked out, but it is beginning to look like the long-promised container-on-barge future is gaining traction.